Cantori New York Debut a Haunting, Relevant Program of Choral Works

by delarue

Saturday night at the Church of St. Luke in the Fields in the West Village, Cantori New York sang an often harrowing, riveting program of powerful, socially relevant US and New York premieres. Director Mark Shapiro conducted the ensemble with a spring-loaded intensity and a beaming sense of accomplishment, mirrored by the group smiling back at him. This ensemble is obviously having the time of their lives pushing the envelope.

In the same vein as Pablo Casals stumbling on the Bach Cello Suites in a junk shop, Shapiro had discovered the distinctive and often mesmerizing work of Italian composer Bruno Bettinelli while browsing randomly in a music store. Bettinelli’s work is virtually unknown in this country and almost as obscure elsewhere. When Shapiro contacted the composer’s onetime publisher in anticipation of conducting the American premiere of Bettinelli’s Three New Madrigals, they had no idea who he was: “Good luck with that,,” was the response, more or less.

Which is astonishing. Shapiro and Bettinelli would eventually become friends, and shortly before he died, the composer sent the conductor copies of his entire body of work. The triptych being debuted raised the question of how many other intricately and imaginatively arranged works might be kicking around in Shapiro’s vaults. The performance began with Parole in Cerchio (Words in the Round), a retelling of a simple six-word Petrarch poem, in this case beginning and ending with love. Raptly hymnal, replete with  of echo effects and reshaped syllables, its tricky counterpart balanced by a wave motion of sorts, it was a showcase for the group’s rhythmic cohesion.

By contrast, Lo Struzzo (The Ostrich), a jovial and ultimately triumphant piece, had a sea chantey-type exuberance that stopped short of buffoonery, with some unanticipatedly eerie chromatics that the group marched up and down the scale about midway through. Shapiro described the final work, Convien Al Secol Nostro (Being Part of Our Century) as a lament for a troubled era, a vividly distant medieval mirror for our own. Building tension with striking contrasts between bass voices and high sopranos, it was awash in uneasy close harmonies and a maze of counterrythms. And no easy answers.

Another US premiere, Latvian composer Maija Einfelde‘s At the Edge of the Earth traced the Prometheus saga in twelve dynamic segments. Looking about as comfortable with the Latvian text as any group of Americans could be, the ensemble made their way methodically through minimalistically pulsing, tightly wound harmonies, jarring melodic adjacencies and a very subtle and intricate game of telephone where notes would be handed off from voice to voice. They took all this through an unexpectedly lilting folk song, a dirgey Slavic work song of sorts and finally a decidedly unresolved ending. The abyss, for this particular Prometheus, is a deep and frigid place.

The program reached a peak with the New York premire of Frank Ferko‘s La Remontee Des Cendres (Rising from the Ashes), utilizing chillingly graphic, tormented, anguished segments from Tahar Ben Jalloun‘s First Gulf War-era epic poem. Told from the point of view of several Iraqi war survivors and victims, it has a shattering eloquence. An eight-piece brass-and-string ensemble anchored by Frank Cassara’s almost subsonic, distantly thunderous bass drum and Kris Saebo’s ominous downtuned bass carried Ferko’s terse, cruelly fatalistic foreshadowing in between the choir’s somber passages. A muted sense of horror was everywhere, in the same vein as Shostakovich’s most harrowing works (String Quartet No. 8 comes to mind). Countertenor Siman Chung and soprano Halley Gilbert added knifes-edge intensity on the high end, up to a couple of horror-stricken, explosive crescendos, a hint at something approximating a peaceful ending, a jaggedly leaping march and eventually a decay into defeated atmospherics whose effect lingered long past a series of standing ovations. Like the Bettinelli piece, it’s a shock that this hasn’t been performed here before.

Cantori New York’s next concert is at 8 PM on May 14 at St. Luke in the Fields featuring Dame Ethel Smith’s rarely performed 1930 cult favorite cantata The Prison. And on March 16,at 7 PM under the direction of conductor K. Scott Warren, the Choir of St. Ignatius Loyola join with soprano Tami Petty for Ferko’s intense Stabat Mater for unaccompanied mixed chorus and soprano solo; plus harpist Victoria Drake joins the choir for the New York premiere of William Culverhouse’s Requiem, at St. Ignatius Church, Park Ave. and 84th St.; cover is $25.